The essence of meal timing

by Tom Ballard, RN, ND

This article was originally published in February 2005

Tom Ballard, RN, ND

(February 2005) — “Timing is of the essence” is not merely an old saying that applies to sports, investing and comedy. The historic record and modern research support the health benefits of regularly timed meals and snacks. Unfortunately, busy lifestyles often cause us to throw regularity into a time warp of missed meals and sporadic snacking.

I’ve been counseling patients against erratic eating habits for more than 20 years and have seen lives transformed by switching to regular meal timing.

Three square meals
Regular intake of food was certainly the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They needed the nutrients for body-temperature regulation (no central heating!) and hard physical work.

Modern researchers have shown that eating three meals a day actually assists in setting the body’s internal clock. Regular meals (and exposure to sunlight) trigger wakefulness during the day. If we are awake during the day, we’re more likely to sleep well at night.

Several studies have demonstrated that eating regularly throughout the day helps keep weight and cholesterol levels down. Irregular meals do the opposite.

Remember, I didn’t say how much to eat, only to eat something of nutritional quality at regular times. You might need only a piece of fruit and a handful of almonds. Quality matters more than quantity.

Let’s look at a typical day in the eating life of the “average” American.

This is often the time when people make their biggest mistake. They skip it altogether or slug down some food substitute — a cup of coffee, a glass of juice or a pastry. These are not foods. A food is something that supplies protein, starch, fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. These nutrients are especially important after having not eaten for eight to 12 hours and when you are about to start a new day.

Studies on people who have lost weight and kept it off show that most of them eat breakfast. Patients with diabetes and hypoglycemia do better with a breakfast that stabilizes their blood sugar.

“But, I’m not hungry for breakfast.” This is a common complaint and usually a matter of habit. If you start eating breakfast, you will probably learn to like it. Sometimes these patients are eating too late the night before and need to shift their meal times to earlier hours.

As a general rule, lunch should be eaten four to six hours after breakfast. The reason for this is that the midday meal provides the calories and nutrients necessary for afternoon work. How big of a lunch? Again, choose quality over quantity. The only reason for a large lunch is if you’re doing hard physical activity.

Dinner is often where the deficiencies of the day come back to bite you. If you’ve neglected breakfast and lunch you’re more likely to be famished by dinnertime and overeat. A big dinner and a big easy chair are big reasons for big people.

On the other hand, if you’ve eaten regularly throughout the day, you won’t be as hungry at dinnertime. Ideally you’ll need only small portions with a concentration of vegetables.

Many people, especially those with blood sugar problems, find it beneficial to eat light, nutritious snacks between meals. This helps balance insulin and glucose levels and prevents drops in energy and glucose (fatigue, foggy headed, shaky, sweaty palms).

Remember, ‘snack’ does not mean the same as ‘junk food.’ Just like meals, snacks should have a compliment of starch, protein, fat and other nutrients.

Individualizing meal timing
Judge the success of your meal timing by how you feel. The first step is to decide on an initial strategy. For instance, you may decide you’re going to eat three balanced meals a day. Good plan. Now, do that for one or two weeks and keep a record of how you feel. If you feel good and your weight is stable or going in the direction you want (up or down, usually down), then stick with that program. If you’re not doing well, reevaluate by pinpointing when you’re not feeling well.

  • Feeling sluggish or tired after breakfast? You may be eating too much food or not a good balance of starch, protein and fat.
  • Starving or irritable at lunchtime? Look back to breakfast. Was the amount and mix of nutrients right? If so, perhaps you need a light mid-morning snack.
  • Mid-afternoon crash? Lunch was too small or not balanced, or you need a snack.
  • Famished and inclined to overeat at dinner? Again, look to earlier meals. Reevaluate lunch and consider an afternoon snack.
  • Hungry late at night? Dinner wasn’t adequate or you’re staying up too late.

We all have an internal clock that regulates our biochemistry and external clocks that affect our waking lives. The healthiest people are those that synchronize their watches and eat regular meals and snacks.

Tom Ballard, RN, ND has been in private practice and teaching in Seattle for 22 years. His book, “Nutrition in a Nutshell: The Only Three Rules You Need for a Healthy Diet,” is due out soon. He may be contacted at the Institute of Complementary Medicine, 206-726-0034.

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, February 2005

Grocery bags; Local food and food security; Squash, gift ideas, Newsbites; and more